After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)

Topanga

From his perch on top of the world, Marvin was tired of seeking. He wanted to be sought. And though there were times when he loved the spotlight, this was a time when he assiduously avoided it. After the triumph of What’s Going On, he had worked for years to develop a follow-up that would create as great a furor. He had accomplished just that with Let’s Get It On. Yet rather than welcome the accompanying acclaim, he ran from it.

I couldn’t help but wonder if he was running from himself. Even though I remained in awe of his talent, I had seen that his insecurities, hidden under a veneer of cool, were potent. Those insecurities alarmed me. While Marvin was gratified that his new album was an immediate hit, he worried that it might soon stop selling. Because Anna was furious with him—and because Anna had such influence with Berry—he worried that Motown might work against him and cut off promotion. He worried that his fans would lose interest in him. He also worried that, in order to bolster sales, he would have to tour. Performing in public was something he dreaded. He had long suffered from stage fright.

I didn’t like seeing Marvin scared. I didn’t like seeing him as anything but perfect. Yet every day his imperfections, in tandem with his seductive charms, became more obvious. This was especially true when we escaped to the rural retreat he called our romantic paradise.

Topanga Canyon, across Highway 1 from the Pacific Ocean, was less than an hour’s drive from Mid-City LA, but a world away. It was that part of the Santa Monica mountain range that, only a few years earlier, had been home to a large colony of hippies, including the Charles Manson family. Marvin’s rustic mountaintop A-frame home was built on three levels. It was all pinewood and glass. It smelled fresh and clean. Its remote location didn’t bother me in the least. In fact, it excited me. I’d have Marvin all to myself.

“Is it too hippie for you out here?” he asked.

“You forget that I grew up with hippies. My mom’s a hippie. I’m a hippie. We’re all hippies. Groovy! Peace! Far out!”

“I hope you won’t be offering any invitations to your mom to visit us anytime soon.”

“I won’t be offering invitations to anyone. I just wanna be with you.”

“And the dogs, of course.”

Marvin had bought two handsome Great Danes, Shad and Caesar, to safeguard us from any outside intruders. He loved them a little more than I did. Uninvited guests and curiosity seekers would not be able to find the house. There was no paved street or address. The only way to reach the place was to call from a gas station on Highway 1 and have either Marvin or me drive one of his two jeeps or his green pickup truck down the mountainside. The visitor must then follow the jeep through a series of twisting roads. Thank God, I reflected, that Marvin had taught me to drive. Before long he bought me a black Porsche 911 that zoomed through the canyon like a rocket.

Marvin had also taught me to make his favorite dish: mashed potatoes, hamburger patties, gravy, and mustard cabbage cooked according to a special recipe from Marvin’s mom. There were frequent trips to the little health-food market. There were blissful evenings by the wood-burning stove with Marvin at his little portable keyboard. There were long and languorous lovemaking sessions in every part of the house—on the living room rug, in the loft, in the kitchen, outside on the balcony, under the stars above. In the morning he and I awoke to a chorus of birds. At night the coyotes howled. Time stood still. Love deepened. The real world was remote, but the real world never stopped calling.

For weeks Marvin kept the outside world away. For our protection he had an AK–47 assault rifle and a shotgun. We hunkered down, but that didn’t stop Motown from knocking at our door. Requests poured in. As Let’s Get It Onbecame the sensation of the summer and one of the fastest-selling hits in history, every DJ in the country wanted Marvin on his show. Motown execs were telling him that if he toured, sales of the record would quadruple. But Marvin said no. No interviews, no tours. Leave him alone. Let him sing to me. Let him sing to the birds. Let him enjoy this respite from the crazy world of show business.

“I’m an artist,” he told me over and over again. “I’m not made for show business. Show business views artists as products. I am a highly sensitive person and you, dear, are all I need to be happy—not the fawning crowds or the mad demands of money-hungry Motown.”

I cherished his words. I wanted this time to last forever. I wanted to believe that we would, in fact, live out our lives in Topanga Canyon, free of the world’s worries and pressures. That belief, though, couldn’t last for long. The world offered prizes that Marvin’s ego couldn’t resist. One was the promise of a Rolling Stone cover story.

Observing Marvin at close range, I saw that his insecurity was the flip side of his egomania. There were days when he swore he would no longer perform again because he doubted his ability to sing before a live audience. On other days he unhesitatingly said that he wanted to be remembered as the greatest singer in the world. A Rolling Stone cover excited that part of him that sought glory and reveled in his own talent. His grand plan was to have Rolling Stone seek him out here in the wilds of Topanga. If they put him on the cover, it would have to be on his terms—no studio shot, but Marvin photographed in his rustic hideaway, communing with nature.

When the magazine met his terms, he was satisfied. He was doubly gratified because precious few black artists had graced the cover of Rolling Stone, a publication primarily devoted to white rock ’n’ roll.

Marvin drove the jeep down the mountain to fetch the reporter, Tim Cahill, and the photographer Annie Leibovitz. When they returned, he introduced me as “his friend.” Then we all got stoned. Marvin had never been more charming. He began speaking of the mysterious nature of his father’s esoteric Christian church. He described what it means to speak in tongues and to tarry—to repeat “Thank you, Jesus” over and over until the Holy Ghost has entered your spirit and cleansed your soul. He talked about being able to sense the spirit in the song of a bird, an ocean breeze, even a raindrop or snowflake. When asked to speak more about his father, Marvin’s eyes glazed over. He paused for a very long while. His answer was a song. “My father has a magnificent voice,” he said, “and when he sings about Jesus, his is the sweetest sound you can imagine.” Then he sang his father’s song. Tim and Annie were mesmerized. I was mesmerized. The sun sank behind the mountains. The dusk was golden. Photos were taken.

“I used to be afraid seventy percent of the time,” Marvin confessed. “Now I’m only afraid ten percent of the time.”

Another joint was rolled. The subject switched to sex. I wondered what he would say.

On the inside of the Let’s Get It On album, he had written, “I contend that SEX IS SEX and LOVE IS LOVE. When combined, they work well together, if two people are of about the same mind. But, they are really two discrete needs and should be treated as such . . . I don’t believe in overly moralistic philosophies. Have your sex, it can be very exciting, if you’re lucky.”

He looked at me and said yes, very lucky. He admitted that when it came to sex he was a fantasy person. When asked if all his fantasies had come true, he turned coy. He wondered about the thin line between an exciting fantasy and an exciting perversity. He wondered if sex, given willing participants, should ever be considered perverse. He concluded by saying that we Americans needed to loosen up and be free.

When the long interview was over and the Rolling Stone people were gone, I considered all that had been said. I was particularly intrigued by Marvin’s remarks about sex. The sex between us, while always exciting, had started to take a different turn. Marvin had become more oral, which, of course, pleased me. Even though I began our physical relationship in his lap, he had increasingly become more willing to reciprocate the favor—a breakthrough for him. At the same time, he had introduced into the mix a certain kinkiness that, although not exactly my style, was something I was willing to entertain. Not to do so would only anger Marvin. I went along with his program, which, from time to time, involved fantasies of me with other women.

These variations did, in fact, bring me new pleasures. The omnipresence of pot and the increasing use of cocaine facilitated my willingness and widened my enjoyment. At times I feared that I was falling down a slippery slope but quickly dismissed such anxieties.

“No need to be uptight,” Marvin urged. “If it feels good, that means it is good.”

I didn’t have to justify my willingness to be led down the path. I felt privileged to be on the path. I still couldn’t believe that somehow this extraordinary man had chosen to live his life with me by his side.

Nestled inside a woodsy canyon, looking down from the mountain, I watched time move slowly. An entire day might be devoted to nothing more than an unhurried walk along the beach to watch the sun slip into the ocean. We sat on the sand and stayed silent as the waves crashed to the shore. Flocks of birds staged whirling formations and flew off into the distance. I took his hand; he kissed my face.

Back up at the house, I was not surprised to see that Frankie Gaye, Marvin’s brother, had arrived. Family members were always showing up. Three years younger than Marvin, Frankie bore a striking resemblance to his older sibling. Frankie had Marvin’s quiet demeanor. Like Marvin, he spoke in a whisper. Like Marvin, he was a gentle soul. He harbored ambitions to sing but, unlike Marvin, lacked the drive to break into show business. He was also a Vietnam vet—the returning soldier at the center of What’s Going On—and a man who had been deeply traumatized by the war. On the surface, though, Frankie was an easygoing character. Only his heavy drinking habit bothered Marvin, who had little taste for alcohol.

“He’ll be hanging out with us for only a few days,” Marvin told me. “You don’t have a problem with that, do you, dear?”

“Of course not. He’s family.” I loved Frankie, who had the same lighthearted sense of humor as Marvin.

I soon learned, though, that family—especially the Gaye family—could be as much a burden as a blessing. When Frankie’s stay extended beyond a few days to a few weeks and then months, I despaired. The love nest was crowded.

On another front, another invasion threatened our domesticity. Motown never stopped calling with the same messages: Your album’s a smash; you’re more popular than ever; your fans are dying to see you, hear you, show you their devotion. How can you resist their love? How can you resist their money? How long can you hide out?

Promoters found their way through the canyon to Marvin’s door with extravagant offers.

“You’ll be returning to the stage a conquering hero,” they promised him.

He lit a joint, he smiled, he pondered, and then he refused. But they refused his refusals and ultimately came back with more money, more perks, more ways to flatter his ego. Finally he succumbed. He set a date for one concert and one concert only. During the late summer of 1973, he committed to playing the Oakland Coliseum in November. The decision came after weeks of mental turmoil.

“At least you’ve made up your mind,” I offered in the way of comfort. “Maybe you’ll even like getting back in the ring.”

“If you really knew me,” he snapped, “you wouldn’t say that. I’m just not ready.”

“Then why did you agree?”

“To make you happy.”

“To make me happy? What!”

“Yes, dear. Don’t you want to watch me onstage being adored by thousands of women and then come home with me?”

“Of course. And your show will be great.”

“It’ll be a nightmare. I’ve screwed up.”

“Then cancel.”

“I’ve given my word.”

“It’ll be fine, Marvin.”

“Roll a jay, dear. I need a smoke.”

“No problem,” I said.

The smoke only increased his apprehension. When the first rehearsals came around, he skipped them. The promoter began to panic. Marvin hadn’t appeared in public in over a year. He didn’t have a regular band or a set show. There was an enormous amount of work to do. He needed to get started, yet he kept procrastinating.

Tickets were printed. Ads were placed. The Coliseum sold out within minutes. Orchestrations were written, musicians hired. If he didn’t start rehearsing now, he’d be in deep trouble. Marvin was courting disaster.

“Marvin loves to cut it close,” Frankie told me.

“Why?”

“He loves the drama.”

“Drama or not, he’s going to have to start rehearsing. He can’t cancel now.”

“Tell the promoter that it’s off,” Marvin said. “November is too soon. I’m not ready.”

“But . . .”

“No buts about it. It’s off.”

A month later, it was on again. Marvin had rediscovered his courage. He was also motivated by a need for cash. Although Let’s Get It On was a hit, royalties would not be forthcoming for a while. In the time since What’s Going Onand Trouble Man, Marvin had spent all the money he had made. When it came to finances and, for that matter, all practicalities, Marvin was defiantly irresponsible. He spent what he wanted to spend when he wanted to spend it. He never heeded the advice of accountants or managers.

“I’m simply unmanageable,” he was quick to say.

He ignored all admonishments about saving money and, most alarmingly, paying taxes. Only when he was forced by dire consequences—like losing the house in Topanga—was he moved to action. Yet even then, action was not immediate.

The Oakland concert, canceled in November, was now rescheduled for the first week of the new year. The mechanism was set back in motion. He was due for the first rehearsal in Hollywood for a show that was only three weeks away.

When he missed the rehearsal everyone panicked—everyone except Marvin. Though anxiety was building up on the inside, on the outside Marvin was cool as a cucumber.

“I want to get an RV,” he said. “I hate flying. I’d much rather drive up to Oakland in a big van.”

He got the van.

“You’re my copilot,” he told me. “Are you ready for our big adventure?”

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“To the city. To ride out,” he said, using his favorite term for cruising.

It was late when we arrived on Sunset Boulevard. During the trip down the coast into the city, Marvin mused about the mysteries of shamans and sorcerers.

The Hollywood night was abuzz. The neon was screaming. Marvin directed his attention to the working ladies who displayed their wares under the streetlamps and on the corners that he had obviously visited before.

At the same time, passing by a homeless man living out of a cardboard box, he said, “How I envy him! He’s truly free. No responsibilities, no ties to the hellish conformity of this world.”

He hungrily surveyed the women—the more salacious the better. The ones with outsize backsides interested him most.

“Stop here,” said Marvin, spotting a hooker. “Please go out and get me that newspaper, dear.”

“Sure,” I replied. I was torn, but I went.

The newspaper rack held copies of the LA Free Press with its semi-pornographic ads for sexual assignations.

“Find anything interesting?” he asked.

“Not really.”

“Would you be nice enough, dear, to go back out there and ask that lady if she’d like to join us for a smoke?”

I hesitated.

“Nothing to be afraid of, dear,” he said.

I realized that there was no going back now. On this trip to the forbidden planet of illicit sex, I had become his partner. If I had been stronger—more sure of myself, less afraid of losing Marvin—I might have resisted, but I didn’t.

I approached the working woman who, as Marvin anticipated, eagerly accepted the invitation. When the visitor stepped into the van, Marvin switched on the overhead light that illuminated his face. Expecting to be recognized, he was geared up to relish the moment.

The young lady, however, did not recognize him. Marvin was crestfallen. His interest waned. He gave her twenty dollars and sent her on her way.

On other neon nights there were times when Marvin wanted me to watch another woman service him. Conversely, Marvin began to speak of fantasies in which he watched me with other men. Over the next years, a few of these fantasies were realized.

I was led into a world that was entirely about him. I was lost in my obsession with making Marvin happy.

As I approached my eighteenth birthday, I’d been with Marvin for twelve months. More than ever, I felt lucky that he still wanted me around. I realized that a million other women would jump at the chance that I had been given.

It didn’t matter that he was using me to fulfill his fantasies. I was willing to be led and fed whatever stimulants he offered.

I felt compelled to give him whatever he needed. If I didn’t, another woman would. Maybe that woman would be his wife Anna.

I loved him and was willing to let him mold me.

Our love was growing. Every day we grew closer. As he slept, I watched him breathe. I imagined that, even in his dreams, we were together. When he awoke, he saw me by his side. He held me. He sang me a morning song. He said, “I love you, dear.”

He was all I needed. He was all that mattered.